Engels on Artillery

by Fred Ray on August 17, 2010 · 2 comments

Fredrick Engels is best known for his political partnership with Karl Marx, especially his editorship of Das Capital after the latter’s death. However, Engels was one of the few political radicals of his time with some actual military field experience, having served in the Prussian army and having taken part in the abortive revolution of 1848, where one of his cohorts was future Union general August Willich.

Engels also wrote prolifically about military matters and unlike his partner Marx actually knew what he was talking about (he ghosted a lot of Marx’s military commentary). Here are a series of articles on rifled artillery he did for the New York Tribune on the eve of the Civil War in 1860. Engels knew something about the subject, having served as an artilleryman himself. Here he gives a good period view of the various guns.

Sir William Armstrong’s gun had the advantage of priority, and of being praised by the whole press and official world of England. It is, undoubtedly, a highly effective machine of war, and far superior to the French rifled gun; but whether it can beat Whitworth’s gun may well be doubted.

Sir Wm. Armstrong constructs his gun by wrapping, round a tube of cast steel, two layers of wrought-iron in a spiral form, the upper layer laid on in the opposite direction of the lower one, in the same way as gun-barrel are made from layers of wire. This system gives a very strong and tough material, though a very expensive one. The bore is rifled with numerous  narrow grooves, one close to the other, and having one turn in the length of the gun. The oblong — cylindro-ogival — shot is one of cast-iron, but covered with a mantle of lead, which gives it a diameter somewhat larger than the bore; this shot, along with the charge, is introduced by the breech into a chamber wide enough to receive it; the explosion propels the shot into the narrower bore, where the soft lead is pressed into the grooves, and thus does away with all windage while giving the projective the spiral rotation indicated by the pitch of the grooves. This mode of pressing the shot into the grooves, and the coating of soft material required for it, are the characteristic features of Armstrong’s system; and if the reader will refer to the principles of rifled ordnance, as developed in our preceding articles, he will agree that, in principle, Armstrong is decidedly in the right. The shot being larger in diameter than the bore, the gun is necessarily breech-loading, which, to us, also seems a necessary feature in all rifled ordnance. The breech-loading apparatus itself, however, has nothing whatever to do with the principle of any particular system of rifling, but may be transferred from one to the other; we leave it, therefore, entirely out of our consideration.

The range and precision attained with this new gun are something wonderful. The shot was thrown to some 8,500 yards, or nearly five miles, and certainty with which the target was hit at 2,000 or 3,000 yards much exceeded what the old smooth-bore guns could show at one-third of these distances. Still, with all the puffing of the English press, the scientifically interesting details of all these experiments were studiously kept secret. It was never stated with what elevation and charge these ranges were obtained; the weight of the shot and that of the gun itself, the exact lateral and longitudinal deviations, etc., were never particularized. Now, at last, when the Whitworth gun has made its appearance, we learn some details of one set of experiments at least. Mr. Sidney Herbert, Secretary of War, has stated in Parliament that a 12-pounder gun of 8 cwt, with 1 lb. 8 ox. of powder, gave a range of 2,460 yards, at 7 degrees elevation, with an extreme lateral deviation of three, and an extreme longitudinal deviation of 65 yards. At eight degrees elevation, the range was 2,797 yards; at nine, above 3,000 yards; the deviations remaining nearly the same. Now, an elevation of seven to nine degrees is a thing unknown in the practice of smooth-bore field artillery. The official tables, for instance, do not go beyond four degrees elevation, at which the 12-pounder and 9-pounder give a range of 1,400 yards. Any higher elevation in field guns would be useless, from giving too high a line of flight, and thereby immensely reducing the chance of hitting the mark. But we have some experiments (quoted in Sir Howard Douglas’ Naval Gunnery) with heavy ship guns of smooth bore at higher elevation. The English long 32-pounders at Deal, in 1839, gave ranges, at 7 degrees, of 2,231 to 2,318; at 9 degrees, from 2,498 to 2,682 yards. The French 36-pounder in 1846 and ’47, gave ranges, at 7 degrees, of 2,279; at 9 degrees, of 2,636 yards. This shows that, at equal elevations, the ranges of rifled guns are not so very superior to those of smooth-bored cannon.

The Whitworth gun, in almost every respect, is the opposite of the Armstrong gun.  Its bore is not circular, but hexagonal; the pitch of its rifling is very near twice as high as that of the Armstrong gun; the shot is of a very hard material, without any coating of lead; and, if it is breech-loading, it is not necessarily so, but merely as a matter of convenience and of fashion. This gun is of a recently-patented material, called “homogeneous iron,” of great strength, elasticity, and toughness; the shot is a mathematically exact fit to the bore, and cannot, therefore, be introduction without the bore being lubricated. This is done by a composition of wax and grease being inserted between charge and shot, which at the same time tends to decrease whatever windage there may be left. The material of the gun is so tough that it will easily stand 3,000 rounds without any damage to the bore.

The Whitworth gun was brought before the public in February last, when a series of experiments were made with it at Southport, on the Lancashire coast. There were three guns — a 3 pounder, a 12-pounder, and 80-pounder; from the long reports we select the 12-pounder as an illustration. This gun was 7 feet 9 inches long, and weighed 8 cwt. The common 12-pounder, for round shot, is feet six inches long, and weight 18 cwt. The ranges obtained with Whitworth’s gun were as follows: At 2 degree elevation where the old 12 pounder gives 1,000 yards), with a charge of 1 3/4 lg, the range varied from 1,208 to 1,281 yards. At 5 degrees (where the old 32-pounder gives 1,949 yards), it ranged from 2,298 to 2,342 yards. At 10 degrees (range of old 32-pounder, 2,800 yards), it averaged 4,000 yards. For higher elevations, a 3-pounder gun was used, with 8 oz. charge; with twenty degrees it ranged from 6,300 to 6,800 with 33 and 35 degrees, 9,400 to 9.700 yards. The old 56-pounder, of smooth bore, gives, at 20 degrees, a range of 4,381 yards, at 32 degrees, of 5,680 yards. The precision obtained by the Whitworth gun was very satisfactory, and at least as good as that of the Armstrong gun in later deflection; as to longitudinal variation, the experiments do not admit of a satisfactory conclusion.

The Whitworth gun is constructed upon the principle of reducing windage to the utmost minimum, by a mathematical fit of the bore, and doing away with what little may remain by the effect of a lubricating composition. In this respect it is inferior to Armstrong’s gun, which has no windage at all; and this we consider its principal defect. The polygonal bore, however, would be impossible without this defect, and at all events it deserves to be acknowledged that with such an originally defective system, such great results have been obtained. Whitworth has undoubtedly brought to its highest perfection the system which gives hard, unyielding shot and allows windage. His gun is immensely superior to the rough empiricism of the French rifled ordnance. But while Armstrong’s gun, and other guns depending on soft-coated shot to be forced into the grooves by pressure, may be perfected ad infinitum, Whitworth’s gun will have no such future; it has already attained the highest perfection compatible with its fundamental principles.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Dick Stanley August 17, 2010 at 9:27 pm

Wonderful stuff. Thanks!


Bryn August 26, 2010 at 1:01 pm

A very nice find.

I continue my quest to try and find the lateral and range deviations of the Parrott and Ordnance guns. The James Rifles certainly was no more precise than the old smoothbores…


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